South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

An Indian court Friday is scheduled to deliver a verdict in the trial of Binayak Sen, a doctor accused of aiding India’s Maoists in a closely watched case that activists have labeled a referendum on whether India, the world’s largest democracy, supports human rights or squashes them in the name of national security.

Dr. Sen was arrested in May 2007 in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, which in the last decade has become a center for India’s Maoist rebels, locally known as Naxalites. The insurgency, which began in a village called Naxalbari in the eastern state of West Bengal in 1967, seeks to overthrow the Indian government in a bid to present a communist paradigm of development. The rebels have attracted support by playing up local grievances such a lack of school and health facilities and the perceived abuse of land rights in the name of industrialization.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has said Naxalism is the single largest threat to India’s internal security. The government’s approach at the national and state levels has been to counter the insurgency with a two-pronged strategy of police mobilization and infrastructure development.

The government accused Dr. Sen of aiding the insurgents by passing notes from a jailed Maoist rebel he was treating to someone outside the jail. He was released on bail in May 2009. He denies passing notes or committing any crime, and says his activities in the jail were constantly supervised by the authorities.

“There is no explanation as to why I was put in prison,” Dr. Sen told The Wall Street Journal in an interview after his release. “I will continue with my role as a doctor and human-rights activist.”

Of his alleged support for the Maoists, Dr. Sen said he didn’t support violence from either the state or the Maoists but that the grievances that Maoists were tapping into for support among the populace were “real.”

Dr. Sen says it was his criticism of killings of civilians by a vigilante group that prompted his arrest and prosecution. The group, Salwa Judum, was created in 2005 and is designed and supported by the state government in Chhattisgarh to nip the insurgency where it is thriving: villages inhabited by India’s indigenous tribes.

Dr. Sen says the main motive of the group, though, is to clear villages so the land can be quarried for iron ore, bauxite and diamonds. Chhattisgarh is one of the most mineral-rich Indian states.

In 2008, when Dr. Sen was still in jail, the U.S.-based Global Health Council awarded Dr. Sen its 2008 Jonathan Mann Award for global health and human rights in recognition of his services to poor and indigenous communities in India. In May that year, a group of 22 Noble laureates sent a letter to the Indian government criticizing Dr. Sen’s incarceration and asking that he be released to receive the award in person.

“We also wish to express grave concern that Dr. Sen appears to be incarcerated solely for peacefully exercising his fundamental human rights…and that he is charged under two internal security laws that do not comport with international human rights standards,” they said in the letter. Meenakshi Ganguly, the South Asia director for the Human Rights Watch said the legal case against Dr. Sen has “several political implications. We are hoping that the justice will be done.”

Ms. Ganguly added: “If he has been unfairly treated by the state, then the court should tell the government not to make political prisoners out of individuals like Binayak Sen.”

Since coming to Chhattisgarh in 1981, Dr. Sen has focused on helping tribal Indians, among India’s most disadvantaged. In 2004, he became the national vice president of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, a civil rights group.

A spokesman for the Chhattisgarh state government said: “We have always taken the stand that the matter is sub judice and whatever be the verdict we will check on its merit and then take a proper legal course.”

In a statement before the verdict Mr. Sen said: “I submit that my prosecution is malafide; in fact it is a persecution.”

“I am being made an example of by the state government of Chhattisgarh as a warning to others not to expose the patent trampling of human rights taking place in the state,” he added.